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The In-game Economics of Ultima Online (1999) (mine-control.com)
125 points by simonsarris on Dec 8, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments

A bit more back story on UO, ported from my comment in the Nomic thread.

UO was divided into Trammel (safe from PvP) and Felucca (not), and some servers only had Fel. Originally, there was only Fel, and Trammel was made to entice more players who might not want such a cutthroat environment.

In Fel as soon as you left a city you were more or less fair game to die from an extremely hostile environment. PC Gamer (If I recall) described the learning curve of UO as "A frozen wall of acid." Brutal, but very exciting. A wild west MMO.

(In Fel) UO was a rare RPG where anyone could kill anyone, for any reason, but with the repercussion that they would be branded a "Bad person" (visible with a gray or red name instead of blue). Stealing from good people corpses also did this. Anyone can attack and kill bad persons, and if you killed even more people you were a murderer and it took a very long time to return to normal.

This Blue/Gray/Red name system created a sort of cautiousness among travelers. Being near a pack of "blue" people might be safe, since any person that tried to steal or kill would turn gray and they'd immediately kill him.

Unless of course, all those blue-named people were conspiring, and you are the target.

You want to use super awesome powerful gear? None of this sissy MMO stuff. Die and you lose it, and your enemy (or his enemy!) gets the spoils. An insurance system was added later (2005ish?) where you could pay a certain amount per item to not lose it, probably also as an attempt to make the game less harsh.

The problem I have with a lot of MMOs is that the power of your character is simply how much time you sink into the game. Essentially, MMOs are games that reward wasting time.

UO had so much more than that. UO was a game where treachery and sneakiness really paid off, if you wanted them to. Lots of ways to nearly instantly kill or entrap people lead to a lot of very exciting plots where guilds might be laden with spies. Absolutely nothing like the ridiculously limited PvP found in games like WoW.

In a lot of ways it was the Diplomacy (diplomatic back-stabbing board game) of MMOs. And it was great.


For more also see outworlder's excellent comment in the Nomic thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4890513

The criticisms of UO wiki page is also a very good read, especially the housing and economy sections: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Ultima_Online

EVE online strongly shares in all of your mentioned characteristics, with the exception that even in their version of "trammel" you can die, but whoever attacks you will get destroyed by NPCs after a small delay.

A fun game aswel, chock-a-block full of backstabbing and intrigue. But definitely brutal as hell.

Eve and Dwarf Fortress are probably the most difficult and complicated computer games in existence at this point.

Many of these mechanics weren't in there during alpha/beta/launch, but came shortly after. But the essential part that was always in there is 'you will die, and get looted' which never happens in modern games.

In the MMORPG area there is today Darkfall which is kind of a spiritual successor to UO in many regards (full loot, anyone can kill you outside cities and so on) but in first and third person 3D. The original game had its issues though and is closed down since mid November because of the release of the now much hyped sequel Darkfall: Unholy Wars (a.k.a Darkfall 2.0), coincidentally coming out on Wednesday next week. It was also greentlit on steam in record time (like within 24h) so there's definitely craving for games like this out there.

edit: http://www.youtube.com/user/DarkfallOnline for anyone interested.

Thank you. I was unaware of this. Darkfall did indeed conceptually pick up UO, but the times I tried it it was absolutely terrible (buggy, empty feeling world, terrible launch management by the developer/publisher) and I kinda wish it hadn't used the first person perspective. A neat idea- just terribly implementation by a pretty bad company.

> 'you will die, and get looted' which never happens in modern games.

DayZ? Minecraft?

As a game developer, I'd explain this as follows: the whole gaming industry has been following the same path towards casualness. Arrows in FPS games telling you where to go, auto adjusting difficulty, forgiving aiming, tons of quick save checkpoints, the list goes on.

The majority of players prefer these be in place - otherwise, why keep doing it? But there's still a significant segment of the market that pines for the day when games really kicked you in the ass.

So enter DayZ, and some psycho player with an Axe chases you while playing a creepy loop of a seven year old girl singing, and exploits bugs to kill you completely unfairly, there's a small but significant number of players that will fall in love with a game like that.

But you're not going to convert even a large share of Black Ops 2 players with that experience. It would be like making every car an Ariel Atom.


I'm interested in how the hardcore-casual Black Ops 2 market (if we can call it that) was created. It didn't seem by mistake. I remember essentially seeing its rise around the release of the Xbox and Halo. Suddenly real multiplayer FPS gaming was available on a console, but lots of stuff changed too. It wasn't the multiplayer of QuakeWorld. It was something different.

On the other hand, a lot of games now are large and diverse with hours worth of content/art, instead of 5 minutes of content constant replayed for hours until the button patterns are memorized.

Gran Turismo (first version, on Playstation one) was hard. It was good, but it was hard.

Later versions (GT4 especially) were much easier, with many more races and tracks and cars. But is it more fun? Is it fun for advanced players to grind through easy races? (even with weird features to increase difficulty and earnings from races?)

DayZ, yes. The problem however is that its so unbalanced that it destroys the game for so many. I've played it a reasonable amount and actually uninstalled it for now. Some day. Just not now.

Minecraft, no. The majority of Minecraft players have actually never been ganked. It happens, but it isn't a critical part of the game. I've played 50+ hours of Minecraft MP and never been ganked. Fell in lava, but never ganked.

It happens in Eve. Undocking in Eve is permission to be destroyed. One of the first things you learn in Eve is to not fly a ship you can't afford to lose.

Good to know. I've tried Eve a few times but never got past the introduction tutorials really. It always seemed conceptually amazing, and also really deep (or overly complex, depending how you look at it).

Die and you lose it, and your enemy (or his enemy!) gets the spoils.

Which creates incentives to cause player deaths. As they say, it's all about what you incentivize.

An insurance system was added later (2005ish?) where you could pay a certain amount per item to not lose it, probably also as an attempt to make the game less harsh.

A band aid.

The problem I have with a lot of MMOs is that the power of your character is simply how much time you sink into the game. Essentially, MMOs are games that reward wasting time.

Most MMOs are structurally the same as resort casinos. There's pretty scenery and distraction which all serves to dress up the primary mechanism of addiction through variable schedule of reward.

Someone should make an MMO where your power is related to what you build, how smart you can work, and how cost effectively you fight. How about a space MMO with a procedurally generated universe of billions of worlds? Allow macro-mining and even provide players an API to write their own scripts. (All in-game resource limited, of course.) Building infrastructure (warp gates) would allow you to exploit resources more efficiently and to charge others a small toll, just like building a railroad would. Server-side execution would allow scripts to have DRM that actually works, so players could license scripts to one another for a fee. I would also have all ship designs be originated by players and licensed. A given design would "auto-nerf" through stat decay over 8 months or so, so there would be an in-game industry of creating new designs and licensing them.

PvP would be entirely be RTS-mode through drone ships purchased by a player or through a mercenary-hire mechanism which lets players participate in RTS battles in hero-class ships. (Which can either be provided by the mercenary or the employer.) Targeting would be done by the computer, with an API provided for players to write their own targeting algorithms. Tactics would depend on dodging and optimal positioning for the given weapon.

Sort of. The curve maxed out way faster than modern MMOs. Getting all GM (grandmaster) levels in your main skills took way shorter than, say, what ever absurd level you can get to on WOW after the 10th expansion.

The game even had an inbuilt macro system that wasn't super sophisticated but it wasn't considered "hacking" an you could max out the easier skills that way.

So in some sense, the devs actually tried to get rid of the grind element. In any case, it definitely was not institutionalized. You could gain skill in fencing by killing monsters OR by dueling friends. There definitely was not a "kill 6 monsters and return the belts for a cool prize" style stuff. So in some sense, it was a bit like you would have liked, just not as all-out.

The thing is that the better players were people who understood how game mechanics worked, and they were older and more mentally capable than I was at 14. So they understood how to make "builds" and how to strategize, while my efforts were based on trial and error, and thus getting to a good build took the better part of a year than a month.

> The curve maxed out way faster than modern MMOs. Getting all GM (grandmaster) levels in your main skills took way shorter than, say, what ever absurd level you can get to on WOW after the 10th expansion.

I would have player character "skills" be a significant but not a dominating factor. Basically, PC "skills" would be automatically learned over time and would be a way to reward players for sticking around. Instead, I would base things more on economic power and kill record. A player can gain more power economically by exploiting a large sector of space, establishing bases, designing/licensing mining/security drones, and building products for players. However, this means they would be mainly playing in the RTS/4X part of the game. The action oriented part would be based on kill record, which would be the ratio of total PC ship value you help destroy over the value of the ships you are destroyed in. Having a high kill record gains "fame" which results in direct monetary rewards and access to (expensive) special items. Something along the lines of players 1 standard deviation above the average kill ratio would randomly receive money for "sponsorships" or be given prototype items to test whenever they are in a winning battle. I would also have another metric of "reputation" which is more based on participation, but which results in lesser rewards.

Another thing I would try out would be to simply grant NPC "followers" to players with a certain level of fame who have stuck around long enough.

When Trammel was launched, I quickly fled to Siege Perilous - the newly created veteran server. Having completely immune, trash-talking hoards take over normal servers took all fun out of the game. Siege was much closer to the original wild west ideal, where you had to answer for your behavior. In general, it was much more mature in interaction... With a few exceptions.

The UO economy was crazy, for a while I had a 11x14 inside of Luna Walls and was making like 30m a week. Selling to a gold dealer using my friends paypal (I didn't even have a bank account at the time, I was in middle school and said friend was in HS). I was making just shy of a grand a month in 8th grade running a mall in a video game.

I later sold my account and the in-game land for 5k, I regret it to this day :(

What am I doing now you might ask...

Bitcoin :)

I remember when one of the house placement land rushes occurred on the server I played on at the time. I had saved up for a Tower deed, and stay up ALL night in preparation. Had friends waiting to camp my spot with me and so forth. I got my spot, got my tower, then a friend of mine told me they were selling on Ebay for $600 to $1,000 depending on the placement and size of house. The Tower being the second largest structure in the game, I ended up selling it two days later for a cool $800.

I was 14 at the time I believe. I used my dad's Paypal account that I had convinced him to get months before, so he had never used it, and then had to explain how I made $800 on the Internet selling virtual goods. My parents insisted I was actually selling drugs for a good month.

Good times.

I had a similar experience. I owned five houses in the desert and basically had a player city. For a while I was even a counselor before they found out I was 14.

Now all we need is a Bitcoin powered MMO.

I'm pretty sure different economic systems could be simulated in MMO games for the benefit of mankind.

Let one game shard run with central banks, and the current economic system where banks create new credit through thin air. See how that affects the economic system in the game. How it affects house and asset prices, commodity prices and purchase power.

Let another shard run free banking with competing currencies. See how that affect asset prices, commodity and purchase power.

In yet another game world within the same system evaluate Bitcoin and see how that affects house prices, commodity prices etc.

And in another world use hard currencies such as gold and silver as purchase coin, simulate that there are limits on how much gold and silver can me mined.

Let the game worlds run for quite some time! Then evaluate which of all those system lead to the most prosperous game population, choose that for the real economy.

Too many variables will be missing. For example, you won't see how different economic systems affect scientific research and (thus) overall technological progress, which is the means by which a relatively poor person today is better off than a king 400 years ago.

Also people play games to have fun or to escape, resulting in their actions being much different than they would be in real life.

Pure Gold:

"Human NPCs serve an extremely important role within the economy of UO because they are permanent. That is, real players disconnect to go to bed or (heaven forbid) to go to work and are therefore not online the majority of the time"

Other insights:

"An interesting economic phenomenon occurred concerning the fee charged by vendors. When they were first implemented, vendors charged a fee based on the resource price of their inventory regardless of their sales. With this in mind, clever players realized that they could set the price for the goods to be extraordinarily high and thus prevent anyone from buying them. This, it turned out, was a very effective way of creating a safety-deposit box since the vendors can not be robbed. Players started buying vendors for the sole purpose of increasing their hoarding space. This exacerbated hoarding problems and also resulted in a form of suburban sprawl where people built tents and attached vendors consuming valuable land. The designers ultimately fixed these problems with an elegant economic solution: the vendors now charge a fee based on the value of the goods assigned by the player. Thus, players can still set the values too high, but they will be charged rent proportionately thus deterring this practice dramatically."

And another

"...almost all characters are forced to be entrepreneurs of some type, a fact which doesn’t correspond well to these player’s real life. In other words, most people in real life generate their incomes from employment contracts and thus they understand these arrangements. Unfortunately, such employment contracts are not implemented in UO. Therefore, there is naturally disappointment when players are forced into being entrepreneurs and find that this job is not effortless."

Never played UO, but I saw this material given as a talk at GDC.

When they set their designs on a closed-loop material economy, they didn't account for extravagant hoarding behavior such as building houses from stacks of leather boots. Occasionally, they couldn't spawn new monsters because the world had ran out of the raw materials the monsters were supposed to drop as loot! They had to inflate the economy several times while trying to find yet another policy fix.

When I think back to the days when I played Ultima Online (14 to 17 I believe), for whatever reason my fondest memory is a "profession" I picked up, which was that of a blacksmith. We're not talking a cookie cutter category I selected on character creation here, we're talking I happened to have a certain level in a skill that allowed me to repair my own armor and weapons, so I turned it into a public service. I'd stand around in the forge area of the most popular town, about 3 - 4 blocks from the bank in town (the most popular area in the town), and advertise that I could do repairs (generally resulting in a tip).

This required that another player literally GIVE me his or her items. As in, I could run off with them if I wanted. There was no trade window that allowed me to repair their items without actually taking them. They had to trust that I would give their items back after repairing them.

I found this absolutely fascinating (and still do) for multiple reasons:

1. Over time you built up a reputation of being trustworthy. At first people would only give a smith they didn't know crappy items, but as you became more trustworthy and well known they would start to hand over their rare items for repair. I was literally building a reputation in an online game, in a real community, for providing a quality service (think about the impact this likely had on a 14 year old, who at that time had no idea what having a job, or building a reputation, was like).

2. Items HAD to be repaired in UO, so this wasn't something players could get around (unless they wanted to train up that skill themselves, and you were limited on how many skills you could train to their max level at any given time). You simply had to trust a blacksmith in order to repair your items. After players came back to town after long sessions of dungeon crawling and killing monsters (in many cases because their armor was in need of repair), they would funnel back into town and the first stop was generally to get repairs.

3. For whatever reason everyone stuck to a tips based system. I don't remember a market rate at any time for repairs that players set as a community. It was just assumed you tipped your smith.

4. The better armor/weapons you personally wore while smithing, the more likely you'd get customers who had better weapons/armor, resulting in higher tips (because they likely had more money). It was my first experience with advertising and building a personal brand.

This is just a taste of why UO was such an amazing game and social experiment. It's a shame nothing has come close to recreating such an experience (EVE Online being an exception, but it still falls short in many ways).

If I had to pick a second fondest aspect of the game, I'd probably say Rune Books. You could "mark" runes in the game with a spell, which coded that rune with the location you were standing in when you marked it, which you could then place in a book. You could then travel back to that exact location at will, at the cost of a spell and its required reagents (hell, the reagents system was amazing as well!). Players made Rune Books of all the towns, dungeons, and crazy hidden locations (or their own homes, favorite shops, etc) for personal use, but also to sell so other players didn't have to make them on their own (as it would require a significant amount of traveling on foot to do so). I remember being very fond of my Rune Book collection.

What a game.

I remember setting up a rune collection in my house/shop (you could set up NPC vendors to sell stuff to other players). The collection was free to use but my vendors sold copies of it you could take away or (for much less) runes that would bring you back to my shop. This meant that people would use my shop as a transport hub, and buy stuff while they were at it.

Such a harsh game, but that's what made it exciting. Interactions felt real, and just like in real life while people could be dicks most people chose to be decent.

Funny, I was thinking about this last night. I had much the same experience, played as a smith 90% of the time. My reflection was on how much trust you can build through a game. Even 10+ years later and not having talked to them since I would trust those other smiths with just about anything.

> If I had to pick a second fondest aspect of the game, I'd probably say Rune Books. You could "mark" runes in the game with a spell, which coded that rune with the location you were standing in when you marked it, which you could then place in a book. You could then travel back to that exact location at will, at the cost of a spell and its required reagents

I'm glad to read this. I thought of a similar system for a space game involving "beacons" and "quantum entanglement." In a space game, one could have billions of procedurally generated locations, so exploration could become an ongoing industry. (And I have a clever user-generated content mechanism for why people would care about exploring countless locations.)

I was an Elder in UO. We created short quests while Seers were responsible for rendering larger storyline quests. Seers weren't really allowed to venture off script and do things but Elders were encouraged to. We Elders had insane powers. We could appear anywhere in the world at anytime, walk around invisible indefinitely and into players locked dwellings. We were able to color and rename items. And make serpents and spiders appear in mass and in the middle of town by waving a beast making wand. This was actually encouraged under the Britain is under the plaque storyline. Being an Elder was boss, but stealing from mages in Occlo with my thieves guild in Baja. Also.

Wow, that is an awesome read. Comparing it to the economics in the World of Warcraft is also interesting. I particularly like the discussion of 'drains' vs 'closed circuits' there is a lot of interesting questions about building virtual economies where those are implemented in various ways. In particular comparing them to 'drains' in the physical world like fashion changes or upgrade cycles.

... and it's not just about virtual economies, either. The section "Hoarding and The Failure of the Closed Economy" is basically a lesson on the so-called Paradox of Thrift and the virtue of government deficits:

In the closed system, the "pumping up" of resources from the bottom of the top was done by the game administrators, and is very much akin to a government that spends exactly what it taxes.

In the open system, the "drain" at the bottom is still government taxation, while the "faucet" at the top is still government spending.

What the developers of UO learned is that those need to be tuned independently of each other to get a well working economy. If only people understood this about the real economy!

If you're interested in in-game economics, another very interesting read is Lessons From Habitat http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html, a game created in the early 80's by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer that ran on Commodore 64.

Despite being written more than two decades ago, most of the conclusions from Lessons.. are still fresh and applicable to game mechanics today.

Randall (@frandallfarmer) is also the author of Building Web Reputation Systems, published by O'Reilly - http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/au/3900. Another nice reading, if you're interested in the subject.

I have always wanted to play Ultima Online, since years ago. But too bad it still has monthly fees... $10 a month might not sounds too steep, but I'm in a place I can't pay using credit card nor get dollars... and it sucks.

I remember playing UO and getting PKed the first foot out of the city. It was quite frustrating. At some point a group of players formed a mob and would hunt down those PKers who played dirty with low level players.


I would like to see an article like this, about the economics behind Eve Online. That would be interesting.

More UO nostalgia:

I started playing UO when I was about 13. My parents paid the monthly fees for a few months, but I couldn't convince them to keep paying for it. ("Do your homework, Sean!") Frustrated, my friends and I found the free, independent, emulator-run servers and started playing on them. Finding the nuances between the free servers (called "shards"), we settled on one in particular and stayed there for the next few years.

I got bored with playing pretty quickly -- I was never really good at games that required skill or huge amounts of time investment. I started talking with the shard staff, gained their trust, and "graduated" into being a moderator for the server when I was 14 by doing some minor policing (resolving disputes, busting people leveling up with macro programs like UOAssist, etc). I could warp anywhere and got to choose special colours of clothing and had this awesome counselor robe. Looking back, according to [1], I best fit a "socialiser" player.

Then I got bored of simply moderating. There were a backlog of feature requests to the lone shard developer, who was busy trying to, y'know, have a family and work his day job. At the behest of the Italian couple who ran the server, I began developing for the shard when I was 15 (having not programmed before). I did lots of simple things like create weapons and funny items with special abilities [2], my favourite being a bag of skipping stones. Then I started doing more complicated things like recreate Triple Triad from FFVIII [3], and useful things like remake the guild system.

These UO people were my friends, we hung out on IRC every day, and even did a couple of international Secret Santa gift exchanges.

I got bored again around 16 or 17 and forgot about UO, but it had a lasting impact on me:

At 18, I began studying computer science. I realized that the code I wrote to sort a list back in the UO days (not knowing any better) was actually the standard sorting algorithm, bubblesort.

(actually relevant to the link -->) At 19, I started to learn about economics and related it back in a very real way to my days playing UO. I was tempted to go back and try to design a method of distributing wealth that reduced inflation.

And by 20 I realized I was a very good programmer. (I'm now 26.) I still attribute UO at the Italians I've never met in person for that.

[1] http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

[2] http://neverlands-library.com/index.php?id=4lvl - can't believe I found this / someone documented this

[3] http://neverlands-library.com/index.php?id=cards

I wrote a good deal of code for a two of the popular emulators; starting with SphereServer, and then RunUO, primarily just on the server side and less so on the actual shard side.

Shards (emulators) let the server owner script and customize the game a lot, such that it rarely resembled the real game. A lot of shards were really shitty, in that the minute you created your character you instantly got full skills, tons of gold, free armor, etc. Thus, there was no pride or value in anything.

SphereServer scripting was very clumsy, written in its own quasi-object language. It had a LOT of flaws, but was leaps and bounds above UOX, the first major emulator.

The RunUO came around, written in C#, and was much faster than SphereServer. It scaled to thousands++ of online users. Scripting was all done in C# as well, meaning things were compiled rather than interpreted at runtime as in SphereServer (some things in Sphere were cached, but not many). Most of the active emulator shards today use RunUO.

I miss UO. I used to work from home, so I had a box set up that would run a simple c program that would send keys to repeat a macro based on what I wanted to train, but at random intervals. I did this because I wanted to keep up with my buddy, who had the time to actually play. But I also had a small bit of code that I injected that would scrape the text. I would set my character on a boat, and then when a mod would show up, it would beep from the PC internal speaker (so I wouldn't get caught if my wife turned down the volume on the speakers). I can't count the number of times talking to some directoe or VP while this high pitched noise came across on a conference call while I panicked to explain the noise, have a conference call, and type enough to convince that I was a person. I miss that.

Nowadays they have macro programs to help with this that use LUA or custom scripting languages to run the game.

I remember learning LUA by writing scripts. Probably my pinnacle here was one to harvest wood / mine automatically, recalling to a bank to drop everything off and then head to a new mine, rotating mines so they wouldn't run out and playing a siren noise and sending me an email when the anti-macro popup would come up.

At this point I was more playing to see how advanced and resilient I could make my script, and less so to play the game, heh.

I actually co-located a server in a datacenter in 1998 just to macro UO. I would pcanywhere into it from home and keep the macros going, etc., and it never lost connection or ping-timed-out since it was right on the backbone (as we said in those days...)

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